Sunday, August 31, 2008

Outback Alert

Brown Sugar May (or May Not) Be Cross-Contaminated

It is possible that some Outback restaurants might bring their brown sugar into contact with bread to prevent clumping. So it seems that, for the moment, people on gluten-free and wheat-free diets should inquire at individual Outbacks as to whether any part of an order that is supposed to be gluten-free might be made with the cross-contaminated sugar. One item to ask about would be the sweet potato; I'm not sure what else might be made with brown sugar.

Outback has offered a gluten-free menu [PDF], made in coordination with the Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG) and then GIG's Gluten-Free Restaurant Awareness Program (GFRAP), for a number of years. The GFRAP roster currently includes 786 Outback restaurants.

Questions about possible cross-contamination in the brown sugar seem to have arisen at least as far back as April 2006. More recently, the blog Grain Damaged reported that cookbook author Connie Sarros offered the following in her "Newsletterette."
Last month, I posted that Outback Steakhouse places a piece of wheat bread in their brown sugar to keep it fresh. I called four different Outbacks in my area and all four agreed that they do place a piece of bread in the bag of brown sugar. Since that time, I have learned that each Outback Steakhouse determines whether or not to add the bread; this decision is based on how quickly they use up the brown sugar and whether or not the bread is needed. It is possible that the Outback near you may not use the bread. It is best to ask the manager once you arrive at the restaurant or call ahead.
On the International Celiac Disease Mailing List, Betty Barfield (President of the North Texas Gluten Intolerance Group (NTGIG)) shared correspondence she had with Gina Marcoff, Vice President of Training & Development for Outback Steakhouse. Marcoff acknowledged the issue in the correspondence.
The restaurants really do handle the brown sugar differently. This practice was brought to our attention recently, and it is something that we need to be aware of for those who are gluten intolerant. We are preparing to film a training video for October's meeting, and we've decided to focus on gluten intolerance, so it's a great topic for us to address!
A mailing list member from Indianapolis chimed in with the following:
Outback has long been a "friend" to people with celiac -- so I hope that folks won't just be too afraid to go there now. At least in our city, they have such a positive attitude toward making sure their GF Menu is safe -- and I think this helpful attitude is a top-down way of doing business.

This is what I found out about our local Outback:

-- YES, they do put piece of bread in the brown sugar to keep it fresh.

-- BUT, when someone orders from the GLUTEN FREE menu (again, this is the policy at our local Outback -- it does not speak for others), the waiter codes that order as gluten free, and they know to open a fresh bag of brown sugar, and that is what is put on the sweet potato.

-- In fact, she told me that the manager of their restaurant location is usually the one who manages the plating of all GF orders, and he is STRICT! If anyone else is doing it, he watches over like a hawk.

*** As for me, I will know now to always ask, at any Outback (and perhaps ANY restaurant now!), if they ever put bread in the brown sugar. But it seems an easy and straightforward thing to ask -- and probably not too much trouble to also ask (if the case) that a new package of brown sugar is opened for one's potato -- or just decide to leave it off. Mostly, I really encourage people to COMMUNICATE with and not boycott their local Outbacks -- which, I think, was also the sentiment of Betty Barfield's note as well.
I will try to add updates about this as they become available. It is a shame that this problem—which seems relatively minor as far as potential cross-contamination is concerned—has existed for so long, and that neither GFRAP nor Outback has been very proactive in addressing and correcting it. I'm glad that Outback plans to deal with it on a corporate basis a month from now, but I'd feel a lot better if I knew that the company were dealing with it immediately—and I'd feel even better if Outback had taken care of this problem already. It might be time for a soup-to-nuts review of Outback's—and GFRAP's—standards and practices.

Something else can be learned from this: Mixing bread and brown sugar to break up the sugar seems to be a common practice even though this source says that the bread isn't necessary. So that's something else to keep in mind when trying to avoid cross-contamination. And, if bread isn't even necessary to do the job, then it would be good to spread the word about that—perhaps starting with Outback.

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